Dictators used SA surveillance equipment: WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks announced a new project yesterday (2 December 2011) that they say aims to “reveal the details of which companies are making billions selling sophisticated tracking tools to government buyers, flouting export rules, and turning a blind eye to dictatorial regimes that abuse human rights.”

The whistleblower website calls their latest release “The Spyfiles” and launched it with 287 files available for download.

Among these files are presentations and product brochures for two South African companies: VASTech and Seartech.

In the press release accompanying the launch, WikiLeaks makes special mention of Stellenbosch-based VASTech, saying that the company secretly sells equipment that can permanently record the phone calls of entire nations.

According to WikiLeaks, VASTech’s equipment was also uncovered along with that of other companies in listening rooms in Egypt and Libya after the governments were overthrown this year.

This equipment was being used to monitor the every move of citizens “online and on the phone,” WikiLeaks said.

VASTech Zebra in cabinet
VASTech Zebra in cabinet

VASTech’s product brochures and presentations

A presentation and brochures of VASTech’s “Zebra” product are among the files released by WikiLeaks, which reveal that the company’s product is designed to allow law enforcement agencies to retrieve all communications of suspects prior to an incident.

According to the “Zebra” product brochure, VASTech focusses on “massive passive solutions for law enforcement.”

Slides in a presentation attributed to André Scholtz show how VASTech markets their passive surveillance system as a way to “provide legal interception (LI) targets while supporting [the] intelligence community” and “go back in history.”

Legal interception process: VASTech
Legal interception process: VASTech

Legal interception, or LI as many of the companies outed by WikiLeaks refer to it, is described in VASTech’s presentation as the following procedure:

  1. Incident occurs;
  2. Target(s) identified;
  3. Warrant or court order obtained;
  4. Interception for legal purposes is conducted;
  5. Legal process follows.

Their system is meant to allow law enforcement to look at communications before the incident occurred so that “agencies can reconstruct events to determine the modus operandi of targets.”

VASTech responds

Asked to comment on the claims made by WikiLeaks, VASTech said the statements are clearly wrong and loaded.

“For instance: how can one sell anything secretly if one promotes it openly at international exhibitions,” VASTech said.

William Barnard, chairman of VASTech, said that they supply systems to legal governments that are not under international sanctions of any kind to assist in prevention of crime.

“We compete internationally, openly with suppliers of similar equipment,” Barnard said.

According to Barnard, the competition in their market comes from a wide range of “well respected countries” of the world, which can be found at regularly conducted international exhibitions where they showcase their systems.

“Our technology is competitive and allows for massive amounts of data to be stored and conveniently and intelligently retrieved,” Barnard said.

We also asked VASTech whether the statements regarding their equipment being used in Egypt and Libya was accurate. If true, who was using the systems and what were they using it for?

Barnard said that they do not disclose the nature and contents of their contracts due to confidentiality imposed by their clients “for obvious reasons.”

He added that should the legal status of a customer change, such as having sanctions instituted against it by international institutions, VASTech terminates its support of such a client unilaterally until the client’s position is restored.

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Dictators used SA surveillance equipment: WikiLeaks